On their face, the pandemic rules at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville don't look so unusual.
The university, like many other colleges, started the academic year mandating mask-wearing, a crucial tool to help curb the coronavirus' spread.
But between mid-November and the end of December, the campus lifted masking requirements, instituted them again and then threw them out once more.
The whiplash stems from conflicts between Tennessee law blocking mask mandates in colleges and an executive order from President Joe Biden directing federal contractors to agree to certain pandemic safety measures, including masking.
Many large research universities, including UT-Knoxville, qualify as federal contractors covered by Biden's directive. The executive order has drawn the most attention for its stipulation that employees of federal contractors be vaccinated against the coronavirus. But it also requires "all individuals" at covered workplaces to wear masks. Higher education associations have interpreted the masking provisions as likely covering students as well as employees.
Court decisions have since blocked Biden's order.
At the end of the fall semester, as the omicron variant of the virus fanned out across the U.S. and COVID-19 cases were on the rise, no one was obligated to wear a mask at UT-Knoxville.
The changes are dizzying. But they exemplify a type of uncertainty rife on campuses across the country originating from political and legal battles over pandemic restrictions.
Policymakers in many states have moved to ban vaccine and masking mandates, despite complaints from higher ed leaders. Objectors say these rules hobble college administrators' ability to protect their campuses, suck officials' time and resources, and spawn confusion among students and staff.
"It's a mess," said Louis Gross, UT-Knoxville's faculty senate president. "And we're powerless to protect our students."
Legal wrangling prompts quick shifts
The fall semester started with masking requirements in UT-Knoxville classrooms only, which were then broadened to nearly all indoor areas.
Students mostly complied, though they might have taken off their masks if they were studying in a remote corner of the student union building or library, Gross said.
Signs hung on building doors reminded entrants to mask up, and stations with face coverings were placed around the campus in case students or staff needed one, said Claire Donelan, the undergraduate student body president at UT-Knoxville.
Paired with the wide availability of vaccines, the university's health protocols appeared to work. The number of new cases detected daily on campus in 2021 peaked at 48 at the end of August, and by November, the university was only recording a few new cases per day.
Then, on Nov. 15, the Tennessee system announced it would immediately revoke the mask mandate across campuses to fall in line with the state legislation, which Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, signed days prior.
A day later, a new missive came. The university announced that the UT system had secured an exemption to the state law from the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office. An exception built into the law allows entities that might have their federal funding jeopardized to obey Biden's order.
Donde Plowman, the UT-Knoxville chancellor, said in an email to campus that the university would wait until Nov. 22 to reinstate its mask mandate. Because the state's attorney general had filed a lawsuit against Biden's order, court proceedings might again dictate the university's legal requirements, Plowman said.
"Until that time, please make whatever personal choice you think is best while being respectful of your students and fellow employees, whether they choose to wear a mask or not," she said.
The abrupt shift confused some students, particularly during the several-day period between when face coverings were optional and masking requirements returned, Donelan said.
But, she said, delaying the mandate was smart. It gave the campus time to acclimate.
State and federal demands clash
Behind the scenes, clashing state and federal demands had begun to muddy UT-Knoxville operations.
Officials were at first instructed to hold off on signing federal contracts because they included provisions from Biden's order mandating masking and vaccines, which conflicted with state law, according to Gross.
Once the state exempted the Tennessee system from the law, the contracts were signed, he said.
Then came federal court injunctions that suspended Biden's order. A federal judge first halted the order in Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee on Nov. 30, and then a separate decision extended that block nationwide the following week.
A day after the Nov. 30 ruling, the Comptroller's Office walked back the system's exemption. The masking and vaccine mandates in the newly signed federal contracts were no longer enforceable, Gross said, creating a legal gray area.
UT-Knoxville officials tried "to work together to remain creative, flexible, and compassionate in each decision we’ve made," said an emailed statement from Kerry Gardner, a university spokesperson. Gardner did not respond to a detailed list of questions about the university's operations, including its action on federal contracts, and declined to make administrators available for interviews.
The statement said masking requirements had no bearing on whether courses were delivered online or in person, except in cases where the university's Office of Equity and Diversity granted accommodations. The university is asking that students and employees follow the path they "think is best with respect to vaccines and masks while being considerate of the choices, health conditions, and requests of others."
"Additionally, we strongly support showing respect for a person's decision to wear, or not wear, a mask or get vaccinated," the statement said. "We remain committed to the wellbeing of our entire campus community, as well as our legal commitments."
'There's a human cost'
UT-Knoxville returned to optional masking the day the Comptroller's Office revoked the system exemption.
The signs adorning every building reminding the campus of mask-wearing once again had to come down.
Final exams were scheduled to begin just a couple days before the switch. Students and instructors would be in close quarters during high-stakes tests, and with no rule that they wear a mask.
Gross, the faculty senate president, on Dec. 2 emailed instructors on the group's behalf, suggesting that they reach out to students and urge them to still put on a mask during class time and stress how face coverings contributed to a low campus infection rate.
He said in the email that faculty don't have to meet with students without masks in their offices.
"A completely reasonable response you might make in this case is simply to place a note outside your office stating that you request that all individuals who meet with you in your office wear a mask (and that you will do the same)," Gross wrote.
Meanwhile, representatives from employee unions wrote to Plowman and the university's provost on Dec. 3, the day final exams started, pleading for the university to restore the mask mandate and allow remote work if possible. They noted that students could only take their finals virtually if Student Disability Services allowed them to, but exams were beginning that day, making the timeline untenable, they said.
They accused the university of being "complicit in creating unsafe learning and working environments" by ignoring Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. The CDC recommends colleges without fully vaccinated populations require masking indoors for unvaccinated individuals. Vaccinated individuals on these campuses would only need to wear masks inside if the college was in an area with high transmission, according to the agency.
Matthew Scoggins, the chancellor's chief of staff, replied to the concerns from Mary McAlpin, a UT-Knoxville French professor and president of its American Association of University Professors chapter, the same day.
"The issues you raised have been addressed by the administration in previous campus communications," Scoggins wrote in an email to McAlpin.
The university's responses have felt inadequate, McAlpin said in an interview. Many faculty live with small children or vulnerable family members, and they fear that loosening restrictions would increase the chances they would bring home the virus, she said.
But faculty who wanted to work remotely needed to supply a letter from a doctor saying they should, McAlpin said. She estimated locking down the university's permission could take at least a week.
"I do understand there are legal changes we have to adhere to," she said. "But the chancellor and the provost don't understand there's a human cost."
Some students have felt anxiety with the mask mandate rescinded, like those taking classes or testing in large lecture halls with many people, said Donelan, the student government president.
Some students are still wearing masks, Donelan said. She thinks the university has done well connecting with students, explaining its legal obligations and encouraging them to get vaccinated in email and other communications.
She expects the administration and student leaders will have more conversations about protocols for the spring.
Part of the faculty's anger stems from observing colleagues in other states where legislators support pandemic safety measures, Gross said.
Colleges in those blue states appear to have no problems issuing masking or vaccine requirements, he said.
Many institutions nationwide in the last month or so have maintained or quickly readopted mask mandates ahead of the spring term, said Ann Bernhardt, a research coordinator at the College Crisis Initiative, an organization at Davidson College that tracks institutional responses to the pandemic.
The more intensive rules — which range from beefed-up testing regimens to requiring COVID-19 booster shots — came in response to the omicron variant of the virus, a highly contagious strain that now accounts for nearly three-fourths of the new cases in the U.S.
The Tennessee legislation and the system's pause on a mask mandate are prominent examples of a state opposite of these campus mitigation trends, Bernhardt said. But institutions such as the University of Georgia and the University of Kansas have also halted masking or employee vaccine requirements in light of Biden's order being suspended.
Many rank-and-file college employees during the pandemic have channeled their ire toward state authorities who blocked colleges' tools for fighting the virus' spread, as well as the governing boards that fell in line with legislators' wishes.
So widespread was this frustration that in August, nearly three dozen higher ed organizations, led by the American College Health Association, called out policymakers for enforcing rules that restrict mitigation measures.
McAlpin said that it feels as though UT-Knoxville and system officials aren't challenging legislators sufficiently.
The state's lawmakers have a history of deep involvement in campus dealings that some perceive as interference.
In 2017, lawmakers set aside nearly half a million dollars for an "intellectual diversity" wing at UT-Knoxville, arguing it would empower conservatives to speak out more. The prior year, they partially defunded the campus' diversity office for a year.
Campus and system leaders should take strong stances against state leaders' positions, McAlpin said.
"They are so afraid of angering legislators, they aren't acknowledging the absurdity of the situation," she said. "We need masks now. We're talking about people's health and lives, and they will not push back at all."